WISCONSIN DELLS — An art display here organized by H.H. Bennett’s great-granddaughter is a bit outside of the box for someone with genes from the legendary photographer.
From 1865 to 1908, Bennett made a name for himself and helped put this river town on the map with his spectacular photographs of the landscape, the area’s Ho-Chunk residents and eventually the tourists.
But the artwork being shown through the end of this month at the Kilbourn Public Library, just a few blocks off Broadway with its T-shirt and fudge shops, is a bit more colorful than Bennett’s. The showing of comic strips and one-panel cartoons is designed to introduce people to an artist who frequented the area and is now buried in Spring Grove Cemetery on the city’s east side.
Since the library, a joint effort between Wisconsin Dells and the village of Lake Delton, underwent a $2.4 million expansion completed in 2011, the facility has hosted a variety of artwork from local talent including photographers, painters, woodworkers and artists who work with fabric. Next month, students from Wisconsin Dells High School take their turn.
But the work of Vernon Grant, a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., who married Dells native Betsy Reese, combines a bit of military humor with science fiction and even mixes in our state’s love of cheese, beer and cows.
“This is a little bit different, but it’s a neat addition to what we’ve shown so far,” said library director Cathy Borck. “It’s a neat blend to have here.”
Grant’s work is included in the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University, but he shouldn’t be confused with another cartoonist of the same name. Vernon S.P. Grant died in 1990 and was best known as the guy who created the Snap! Crackle! and Pop! characters for Rice Krispies cereal.
Our Vernon Grant met Reese in 1972 when both were attending Sophia University in Tokyo. Two years later, Grant began visiting Wisconsin and in 1978, Grant and Reese married.
Betsy Grant, 63, said her late husband, who died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 71, grew to love Wisconsin, its culture and even its football team, except on certain Sundays when his New England Patriots played the Green Bay Packers.
He passed the Reese family canoe test involving a trip on the Wisconsin River. The couple, both avid marathoners, would also run the streets and roads of the Dells area when visiting family.
When I met with Betsy Grant on Tuesday, the bombing near the finish of the Boston Marathon was just over 24 hours old and the drama of late Thursday and Friday in and near her longtime home had yet to unfold.
“It’s certainly sad and makes me angry, too, that someone could be that cruel,” she said.
The Grants made a life in Massachusetts where Betsy worked in sales and Vernon on his art. Together they ran the Boston Marathon more than a dozen times. After Vernon’s death, Betsy continued to live in Cambridge but in 2011, she had her husband’s cremains exhumed from a military grave and she moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to her now 89-year-old mother.
Grant works in customer service at Wilderness Resort in Lake Delton and, like her great-grandfather, knows a thing or two about promotion. She would like to create a book of her husband’s art and made a series of postcards from his artwork she distributes. The showing at the library is her largest effort in Wisconsin.
“I want (people here) to get to know his art and humor,” Grant said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for me to acquaint a lot of people with not only his military art but his ‘Love Rangers’ series.”
The Love Rangers were intergalactic squads that traveled the universe in their spaceship “Home,” effecting peaceful change through love. In one theme, the Love Rangers try to get a planet of owls to get along with the resident mice.
Vernon Grant began creating comics as a child but took it up a notch when he volunteered for the Army in 1958. During a 10-year span that included stints in Vietnam, he drew humorous cartoons for “Pacific Stars and Stripes.” That led to the creation of Point Man Palmer, a young draftee who was put in humorous situations and had an invisible girlfriend, Peppermint.
Grant was discharged from the Army in 1968 and began creating graphic novels. He also wrote and drew for Japan’s English-language newspapers, including the Mainichi Daily News. When he returned to the U.S. in 1973, Grant drew postcards that were sold in Boston. Between 1977 and 1988, Grant published seven issues of the Love Rangers.
“The story is of very little fighting,” Grant said of the racially mixed, peaceful Love Rangers. “His philosophy was ‘I create art because I love what I’m doing’. ”
The same could be said of Bennett, but of course the style, medium and subject of the art is different. Bennett used his camera to capture the Wisconsin River and its rock outcroppings like Sugar Bowl, Boat Cave and Stand Rock. Grant used paper and colored pencils to draw fictional characters, but with real-life themes.
Betsy Grant, however, sees some similarities between her husband and her great-grandfather.
“They both worked really, really hard at their work,” Grant said. “They were both perfectionists.”